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The View from Auschwitz Birkenau

babyWe stood in half a foot of fresh snow as we looked across the waste and terror of Birkenau. How grave this grave. We were lucky I think. The blank Polish sky warmed up to almost-freezing and laid a new blanket of white across the legacy of horror. It was reverent, clean, and peaceful. It almost seemed unfair.

My daughter reminded me that it would be worse if it had been green. It might look pretty, verdant, life-affirming: a green field dotted with crumbling brick chimneys from the ruined barracks; the cratered ovens memorializing a peculiar race of sub-human supermen who could decide to erase a people—and almost succeed.

Most tourists don’t come in January, for good reason. But there are clumps of people, young and old. They are quiet, helping one another, saying a prayer, earnestly clambering through the thick snow, careful not to slip on this unforgiving earth and the vast expanse—a stretch of snowy wilderness we would avoid in town. But who can complain in Birkenau? If my coat’s a bit thin, if a bit of moisture comes through the toe of my boot, if the wind stings my eyes, how can I complain about such minor matters in the shadow of the hole in the world.

I clutch a return ticket in my pocket. Gray cabdrivers await the 15 Zloty return fare and I press against the watch on my arm. Suddenly I know that we must make the 3:36 train back to Krakow. There’s little light left in this bleak Polish winter sky and we must be out of here before dark. I couldn’t stand to be here after dark.

So this is Birkenau.

My head didn’t form the reciprocal phrase at Auschwitz. We were fresher then—a few hours back when we were dropped at the museum door, warm, fearful. Now the chill of vast acres of Birkenau has numbed each fiber inside and out.

I’ve been reading Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz. Last night I pressed the book mark into the beginning of his second winter. W stand in the cold and snow that he dreaded. My heart is full of Levi’s youth and his stories of theft, bravery, and adjustment to barbarism.

I’ve been bracing myself for this day. I summoned mental and physical strength. I saved my warmest socks.

Walking alongside the brick buildings of Auschwitz, my daughter dared to mention that it almost looks nice: the richly colored brick in perfect rows; the wrought iron gate; the blanket of snow; the cold cleansing air. It could be a trip around any brick installation. But inside each building there is an exhibit of humankind’s worst nature, perfected here.

There is no understanding Auschwitz and Birkenau—that is the point of coming here. That is what drives us along the corridors so we can get out in time. That is what saves us, as we push inside the taxi. If you could contain Auschwitz, if you could grasp it, perhaps you would become a part of it. It is permissible, essential even, to leave portions unread, moments uncontemplated.

The archivists know this. They know that a glimpse into the storehouses of plunder and evil says more than numbers and maps and orders and carloads. Each Holocaust site has its pile of shoes, only here there are also cases of human hair, baby clothes, spectacles, shaving brushes and prosthetic limbs. How many of these arms and legs were gifts from the Kaiser to loyal soldiers just a couple of decades before they were stolen here at Auschwitz?

Of all the collections, it is the luggage that hits me the hardest. Leather bags with conscientious tags: Ernest Rosenthal, Levi Bloch, addresses in Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia. These bags were carefully packed for their last journey, filled with only the most important or useful things for resettlement. Resettlement would have been an awful enough fate. But the truth was too wicked for the owner to have contemplated.

So this is Poland, this is Europe, this was the Twentieth Century. I know “never forget.” I must learn “don’t always remember” so I can look at the future.